Sheep herder crawls away from the bear that bit his head as he defended the flock, officials say

A sheep herder got attacked by a bear as he tried to defend the herd in a horrifying overnight encounter in the Colorado wilderness, officials said.

The attack left the 35-year-old man severely injured, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said in a news release. Officials did not identify the man.

The herder was “working for a permit holder of a sheep grazing allotment” in the San Juan National Forest, officials said. He was sleeping in a camp in the Weminuche Wilderness above Lemon Reservoir when he was woken up by a “disturbance” between a black bear and his sheep about 1 am Tuesday, July 11.

The herder shot at the bear with a .30-30 caliber rifle before it attacked him, officials said. He was left with bite wounds to his head, his left hand and arm, and severe lacerations to his left hip area and back.

He crawled back to his tent after the attack and called his cousin. Emergency rescuers airlifted him to Mercy Regional Medical Center, where wildlife officials collected DNA samples.

After his initial treatment, he was flown about 150 miles to Grand Junction for surgery.

Three wildlife officers went to the Transfer Park trailhead and to the camp near the Burnt Timber Trail, where they quickly found a blood trail and the man’s rifle, officials said.

They also found two dead sheep with “wounds consistent with bear depredation” and took DNA samples, officials said.

Then the search for the bear began. Officers weren’t sure whether the bear had been shot, and requested a team of dogs to search for the bear.

The team of hounds soon honed in on a scent trail south of the creek drainage and tracked the bear to the Florida River with wildlife officers following “in steep and treacherous terrain,” officials said.

An agent from the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service shot and killed the bear just before 11 pm, officials said.

“This is a difficult part of the job,” said Adrian Archuleta, Colorado Parks and Wildlife area wildlife manager. “But when it comes to injuries to humans as a result of a predator attack, human health and safety are our top priorities.

It’s the agency’s policy to euthanize a bear that attacks a person, officials said.

Wildlife officers estimated the bear was an 8-year-old male that weighed about 250 pounds. The bear had wounds to its chest, but officers couldn’t tell whether they were gunshot wounds.

They collected more DNA samples to compare to those collected from the victim and the attack site, and also discovered sheep wool in the bear’s stomach, officials said. The agency will also test for rabies since the bear bit a human.

It was the first reported bear attack in Colorado in 2023 and the first in La Plata County since May 2021, officials said.

What to do if you see a bear

Bear attacks in the US are rare, according to the National Park Service. In most attacks, bears are trying to defend their food, cubs or space.

There are steps people can take to help prevent a bear encounter from becoming a bear attack.

  • Identify yourself: Talk calmly and slowly wave your arms. This can help the bear realize you’re a human and non-threatening.

  • stay calm: Bears usually don’t want to attack; they want to be left alone. Talk slowly and with a low voice to the bear.

  • Don’t scream: Screaming could trigger an attack.

  • Pick up small children: Don’t let kids run away from the bear. It could think they’re small prey.

  • Hike in groups: A group is noisier and smellier, the National Park Service said. Bears like to keep their distance from groups of people.

  • Make yourself look big: Move to higher ground and stand tall. Don’t make any sudden movements.

  • Don’t drop your bags: A bag on your back can keep a bear from accessing food, and it can provide protection.

  • Walk away slowly: Move sideways so you appear less threatening to the bear. This also lets you keep an eye out.

  • Again, don’t run: Bears will chase you, just like a dog would.

  • Don’t climb trees: Grizzlies and black bears can also climb.

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